I spoke to 99 big thinkers about what our ‘world after coronavirus’ might look like – this is what I learned

There is no going "back to normal."

What big thinkers have to say about life after covid-19
Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

Back in March, my colleagues at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University thought that it might be useful to begin thinking about “the day after coronavirus."


For a research center dedicated to longer-term thinking, it made sense to ask what our post-COVID-19 world might look like.

In the months that followed, I learned many things. Most importantly, I learned there is no “going back to normal."

My season of learning

The project took on a life of its own. Over 190 days, we released 103 videos. Each was around five minutes long, with one simple question: How might COVID-19 impact our future? Watch the full video series here.

I interviewed leading thinkers on 101 distinct topics – from money to debt, supply chains to trade, work to robots, journalism to politics, water to food, climate change to human rights, e-commerce to cybersecurity, despair to mental health, gender to racism, fine arts to literature, and even hope and happiness.

My interviewees included the president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a former CIA director, a former NATO supreme allied commander, a former prime minister of Italy and Britain's astronomer royal.

I "Zoomed" – the word had become a verb almost overnight – with Kishore Mahbubani in Singapore, Yolanda Kakabadse in Quito, Judith Butler in Berkeley, California, Alice Ruhweza in Nairobi and Jeremy Corbyn in London. For our very last episode, former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined from Seoul.

For me, it was truly a season of learning. Among other things, it helped me understand why COVID-19 is not a storm that we can just wait out. Our pre-pandemic world was anything but normal, and our post-pandemic world will not be like going back to normal at all. Here are four reasons why.

Disruption will accelerate

Just as people with preexisting medical conditions are most susceptible to the virus, the global impact of the crisis will accelerate preexisting transitions. As Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer highlights, a year of a global pandemic can pack in a decade or more of disruption as usual.

For example, Phil Baty from "Times Higher Education" warns that universities will change "profoundly [and] forever," but mostly because the higher education sector was already screaming for change.

Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Ann Marie Lipinski arrives at the same prognosis for journalism, and Princeton economist Atif Mian worries similarly for structural global debt.

At Harvard, trade policy expert Dani Rodrik thinks the pandemic is hastening the "retreat from hyperglobalization" that was already in train before COVID-19. And Pardee School economist Perry Mehrling is convinced that "society will be transformed permanently … and returning to status quo ante is, I think, not possible."

Politics will become more turbulent

While the clouds over the global economy are ominous – with even the usually optimistic Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir Angus Deaton worrying we might be entering a dark phase that takes "20 to 30 years before we see progress" – it is political commentators who seem most perplexed.

Stanford University's political theorist Francis Fukuyama confesses he has "never seen a period in which the degree of uncertainty as to what the world will look like politically is greater than it is today."

COVID-19 has underscored fundamental questions about government competence, the rise of populist nationalism, sidelining of expertise, decline of multilateralism and even the idea of liberal democracy itself. None of our experts – not one – expects politics anywhere to become less turbulent than it was pre-pandemic.

Geopolitically, this manifests itself in what the founding dean of Harvard's Kennedy School, Graham Allison, calls an "underlying, fundamental, structural, Thucydidean rivalry" in which a rapidly rising new power, China, threatens to displace the established power, the United States. COVID-19 accelerated and intensified this great power rivalry with ramifications across Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

Pandemic habits will persist

Not all turbulence, however, is unwelcome.

Across sectors, expert after expert told me that habits developed during the pandemic won't go away – and not just the habits of Zoom and working from home.

Robin Murphy, engineering professor at Texas A&M University, is convinced that "we are going to have robots everywhere" as a result of COVID-19. That's because they became so pervasive during the pandemic for deliveries, COVID-19 tests, automated services and even home use.

We hear from both Karen Antman, dean of Boston University's School of Medicine, and Adil Haider, dean of medicine at Aga Khan University in Pakistan, that telemedicine is here to stay.

Vala Afshar, chief digital evangelist at Salesforce software company, goes even further. He argues that in the post-COVID-19 world "every business will be[come] a digital business" and will have to take a great deal of its commerce, interactions and workforce online.

Crisis will create opportunities

Science journalist Laurie Garrett, who has warned about global epidemics for decades, imagines an opportunity to address the injustices of our economic and societal systems. Because "there will not be a single activity that goes on as it once did," she says, there is also the possibility of fundamental restructuring in the upheaval.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben says the pandemic could become a wake-up call that makes people realize that "crisis and disaster are real possibilities" but can be averted.

They are not alone in this thinking. Economist Thomas Piketty recognizes the dangers of rising nationalism and inequality, but hopes we learn "to invest more in the welfare state." He says "COVID will reinforce the legitimacy for public investments in [health systems] and infrastructure."

Former Environmental Minister of Ecuador Yolanda Kakabadse similarly believes that the world will recognize that "ecosystem health equals human health," and focus new attention on the environment. And military historian Andrew Bacevich would like to see a conversation about "the definition of national security in the 21st century."

Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, is awestruck at the extraordinary amount of money that was mobilized to respond to this global crisis. He wonders if the world might become less stingy about the much smaller amounts needed to combat climate change before it is irreversible and catastrophic.

Ultimately, I think Noam Chomsky, one of the most important public intellectuals of our times, summed it up best. "We need to ask ourselves what world will come out of this," he said. "What is the world we want to live in?"

John Prandato, communications specialist at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, was series editor for the video project and contributed to this essay.The Conversation

Adil Najam, Dean, Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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